• Reference Recordings HRx Review

    The new HRx albums from Reference Recordings are unlike anything I've ever heard. While I did have high expectations for these releases I certainly did not expect anything this close to perfection. I am absolutely blown away by the sound quality. Everything from the crystal clear highs to the extremely accurate lows sounded fabulous. In fact all the typical audiophile adjectives that describe great sound are apropos for these albums. Read more to find out why this product might be the catalyst that kicks the high end audio world into gear and popularizes music servers like none other.
    I've listened to some great systems and wrote about excellent products from Wilson Audio to Audio Research Corporation. But, I've never been this enthusiastic about a single audio product. One reasons is the HRx releases from Reference Recordings really have the ability to drive great change in the high end audio world. These albums come as WAV files on DVD Data discs. There is no way to play them on a standard DVD/DVD-Audio player. Thus, you have to copy the album's tracks to your computer or canned music server. This alone will likely drag many audiophile holdouts into their high end shop to order a canned music server or a great DAC, capable of playing these tunes in their native 24 bit / 176.4 kHz resolution, that they can connect to a computer. As many of you already know, once the flood gates are opened to using a computer for high end audio reproduction there is no turning back. Greater convenience and better sound. There has never been such an easy decision to make. Those of you still seeking to justify a music server purchase just had your wish granted by Reference Recordings. Face it, there is no other way you're going to experience this much quality without going to a live performance.

    The first three HRx release from Reference Recordings are HR-112 CROWN IMPERIAL, HR-109 YERBA BUENA BOUNCE, and HR-96 RACHMANINOFF. All three are bit-for-bit copies of the original masters in 24/176.4 high resolution. Crown Imperial features the Dallas Wind Symphony and its music director Jerry Junkin. Rachmaninoff is performed by the Minnesota Orchestra / Eiji Oue. Like the other RR Minnesota Orchestra releases this performance is excellent. Yerba Buena Bounce is the tenth album by the jazz ensemble The Hot Club of San Franciso. Each of these three albums is great when played back in the original HDCD format. Now these great recordings are spectacular with the release of the HRx version that remains High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD). The albums sell for $45 and are available right from the Reference Recordings website. The price may seem a bit steep but I assure you these albums are well worth $45.

    Playback of these HRx albums is best accomplished with a DAC / computer combination that supports the 24/176.4 high resolution. The albums are playable on lower resolution systems, but the sound is not world class like it is when played back through the right DAC and computer combo. My system for this review contained a macBook Pro and the Weiss Engineering Minerva firewire DAC. I tried a few other DACs during my listening sessions for this review, but without the 24/176.4 support when connected to a MacBook the other DACs failed to reproduce the real magic of these recordings. Listening through a popular DAC that supports native 24/96 via USB made the music sound very constricted and forced me back to the Minerva in no time at all. Apple Corp. claims its Macs support up to 24/192 through the built-in optical outputs. This would be a fairly good option for listening to HRx releases through a wider array DACs, but to the best of my knowledge nobody has been able to adjust the Audio Midi settings above 24/96. The people at Reference Recordings strongly suggest using a computer with the Lynx Studio AES 16e PCIexpress card connected via AES/EBU to a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC. This DAC fully supports HDCD and has an indicator light to confirm the HDCD content is played back bit perfect. Both the Weiss Minerva and the Berkeley Alpha support Windows and Mac OS X.

    I began this review talking about the wonderful sound of these HRx recordings and I will complete the review talking about the wonderful sound. All three recordings offer something a little different. A wind symphony, an orchestra, and a jazz ensemble to be precise. My favorite album is Crown Imperial by the Dallas Wind Symphony. The dynamics reproduced on this one are stunning. My favorite track on my favorite album is number three Walton Crown Imperial. This track has an awesome display of highs and lows right from the start. Your system will really get a workout if you like the volume a little loud like I do. The crashing cymbals and the deep drums both sound perfect with spectacular definition and separation. The compression utilized by so many popular recordings is nowhere to be found around this recording (and the other HRx releases). Track number eight Daugherty Niagara Falls is a real treat for systems that have no trouble reproducing highs. The whole song has a range of highs and lows, but it is the beginning that I really love. The mix of instruments is crystal clear, especially when played back through the Weiss Minerva DAC. I played this track several times on several DACs and none of them came close to the quality of the Weiss Minerva (complete Minerva review coming soon). Jazz ensemble fans will really like Yerba Buena Bounce. The album is upbeat and the acoustic guitar sound like it is coming from within the listening room. Track number eight Black and White has some great guitar, bass, and violin. In the middle of the track the bass gets going. The definition and realness of it are fabulous. The rest of the instruments are all played to perfection and sound like perfection when played back in the HRx 24/176.4 high resolution resolution. The Rachmaninoff performance by the Minnesota Orchestra is equally as thrilling as the other two HRx releases. This album has powerful dynamics and the sound ranges from barely audible to room filling splendor. Wellington the Computer Audiophile cat, pictured here, happened to stroll in and jump on my lap during a rather quiet passage on the album. As you can probably guess he took off briskly when the complete orchestra kicked in and the whole house was filled with sound emanating from my listening room. Sorry Wellington, I should have warned you :-) The rest of the album is typical Minnesota Orchestra greatness combined with Reference Recordings stunning HRx sound. There really is nothing negative to say about any of these recordings.

    The long wait from HRx announcement to HRx delivery was more than worth it. After hearing it at CES I talked it up to everyone who bothered to listen. Fortunately the sound is even better in the privacy of a quiet controlled environment like my listening room. My McIntosh / Avalon Acoustics / Weiss Engineering system really put me in the jazz club or the orchestra pit depending on the album. I honestly can't believe how excited I am about the HRx "format." It's hard to be happy about a few albums that render your complete collection obsolete, but I really am elated about HRx. If Computer Audiophile handed out awards HRx from Reference Recordings would sweep the whole ceremony.
    Comments 44 Comments
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey Spike - Yes, I used FireWire with a 6pin to 6 pin <a href="http://www.monstercable.com/productdisplay.asp?pin=2885">Monster Digital Firelink Cable</a>.
    1. VincentH's Avatar
      VincentH -
      Hi Chris, did you by chance also try listening with your Grado RS1 to these HRx recordings through the Minerva? As an RS1 owner looking for a hi-res DAC I'm very interested in how well the RS1's can reproduce all that hi-res goodness.<br />
      <br />
      Thx, VincentH
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey Vincent - I didn't try any headphones with the HRx & Minerva combination. I will give it a shot and let you know what I think.
    1. PNCD's Avatar
      PNCD -
      Chris<br />
      I have just received my Minerva, but without any software drivers. My dealer tells me no drivers are needed but my dedicated Vista system will recognize the device but not its audio function.<br />
      Did you receive drivers? If so, where can I get them?<br />
      Like you, my goal with Minerva is to get high quality high resolution replay from all the new formats that are out there.<br />
      Thanks, Peter
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      The Minerva comes with a software CD that you should have received. I'm not sure if this is available on the Internet or not. Let me contact Daniel Weiss and I'll let you know.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey PNCD - I talked to Daniel Weiss who reiterated that software is indeed require for the Minerva. The disc should be in the back of the manual connected to the inside back cover. Let me know if you don't find it there and I will upload the disc to the site here so you can download it.
    1. PNCD's Avatar
      PNCD -
      Now I feel dumb! I had shaken the manual when looking through the stuff and did not find it stuck to the back cover.<br />
      I will now try to get it working with Vista and my various programs.....that is the BIG downside of computeraudio.<br />
      Thanks,<br />
      Peter
    1. TheRocker's Avatar
      TheRocker -
      <cite>Apple Corp. claims its Macs support up to 24/192 through the built-in optical outputs. This would be a fairly good option for listening to HRx releases through a wider array DACs, but to the best of my knowledge nobody has been able to adjust the Audio Midi settings above 24/96.</cite><br />
      <br />
      Chris, I have come across this limitation too, maybe Mark can jump in here and let us know how the RME FF400 handles this?<br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <cite>The people at Reference Recordings strongly suggest using a computer with the Lynx Studio AES 16e PCIexpress card connected via AES/EBU to a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC.</cite><br />
      <br />
      I assume that the only Mac that can achieve this is a Mac Pro, or can a MacBook Pro do this via the ExpressCard/34 slot?
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey Peter - I think mark can confirm this as I asked him about it a few weeks back. I wanted to make sure his pro audio components had the same fate as my consumer products. We'll see what he has to say here though.<br />
      <br />
      Of course the Mac Pro accepts the Lynx card. If you want to use the Lynx card on a laptop you can purchase an ExpressCard to PCI/Express adapter. Like you suggest, you put the card into a little box that has a cable into your ExpressCard slot.
    1. markr's Avatar
      markr -
      I can only confirm that with the FF400 connected, that both the control panel for the FF and the Audio Midi utility will allow me to select 192 kHz. - or any other setting I've yet heard of up to that. The FF user's manual states that ADAT and SPDIF operation is switched down to a reduced channel count (never less that 2 channel digital out) as the sample rates rise. That has to do with operating the hardware at higher multiples of standard frequencies - it is called bit splitting or S/MUX -. The analog output sounds perfect to me at 24/96 (the point where S/MUX is switched in for the digital outs) I cannot confirm the analog playback quality of higher sampling rates at this point. I need to get some HRx tracks music to confirm this. On a side note, the FF manual mentions that Core Audio begins reducing it's available channel count as the sample rate climbs as well.<br />
      <br />
      As for Core Audio supporting 192kHz without an external DAC, I don't see it there. 24/96 is the best my MacBook Pro will do natively. It isn't one of the newest ones though, it is from the last generation of MBP's.<br />
      <br />
      markr
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Before we take this one further I have to make sure we are all talking about the same thing.<br />
      <br />
      I was referring to the built-in optical output of Macs and their inability to go beyond 24/96.<br />
      <br />
      With the Minerva I can certainly go beyond 24/96 connected via FireWire.
    1. markr's Avatar
      markr -
      ... while you were posting your request for clarification - I realized that I hadn't answered the question fully. AFTER the post. 8^)<br />
      <br />
      markr
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Cool. I thought we discussed this one a few weeks ago! Thanks for the edit!
    1. TheRocker's Avatar
      TheRocker -
      Thanks Chris and Mark!
    1. jxo's Avatar
      jxo -
      Chris: what is your guess on whether an XP based computer plus the Lynx will really improve matters over what you heard with a Mac and a simple firewire connection to a decent 176.4 capable DAC?<br />
      This really has me re-thinking my hardware approach. I am beginning to consider going Mac... finally... if XP plus Lynx does not represent a serious improvement over your setup. I guess the options are limited, if the Minerva is the only firewire DAC that will get the job done (or, as you point out, the optical connection is fixed to do 176.4).<br />
      <br />
      Second question: can these HRx WAV files be accessed wirelessly without loss of sonic quality? Specifically, if I were to go with a laptop (whether Mac or XP plus a Lynx) and use it to connect via my wireless router to a networked drive containing the HRx files, will I be able to play back these hi rez wav files without problems or sonic degradation? assuming, of course, that the laptop is connected to the right DAC (either firewire from a Mac or AES/EBU from the Lynx on an XP laptop),<br />
      <br />
      Lastly, what software player did you use?
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey Jim - Good questions. I would not expect a Windows XP machine with a Lynx card to sound better than my Mac with the Minerva FireWire DAC. Windows has so many variables and tweaks with each playback application that I would be willing to put a Mac with the Minerva up against any Windows setup any day. In my opinion the Mac/Minerva combo would come out on top every time.<br />
      <br />
      The HRx files can surely be played in all their glory with a wireless NAS drive containing all the tracks. I use a NAS drive connected to an Apple Airport Extreme which wirelessly send the data on my MacBook Pro music server. There are no issues doing this because the data flowing via wireless is pre-iTunes and the MacBook Pro processes the data just like it was coming from the local hard drive. It is a different story if iTunes is sending the data to a wireless DAC. The state of wireless DACs is subpar in my opinion and limited to lower resolutions. So, to answer your question straight forward :-) there is no sonic degradation by accessing your music files via wireless router connected to a network drive. Just dont send your music to the DAC via wireless (yet).<br />
      <br />
      I use iTunes. Bit perfect on a Mac right out of the box.
    1. musicalsound's Avatar
      musicalsound -
      I wonder how the sound of Mac -> Minerva will compare if these wav files are used to create an DVD-A disc and playback using a DVD-A player such as an Esoteric SA-60... For those who don't want to invest in a separate DAC just yet.
    1. jxo's Avatar
      jxo -
      Chris: have you spotted an adapter for a laptop to accept a pci soundcard like the Lynx card? all of the adapters I found were for use in a pc to enable them to use laptop express cards. Am beginning to think about an XP laptop, Lynx soundcard, new DAC with wireless file access. I have not been able to find the necessary adapter so a laptop can use the Lynx card.<br />
      <br />
      Second, would the Benchmark DAC1 connected to a Lynx soundcard via AES/EBU resolve the RR HRx recordings at full 24/176.4 resolution? am hoping it would do so with an XP laptop running iTunes.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey Jim - Forgive me if I've already sent this one to you but sometimes I can't remember what I did an hour ago much less a week ago! This adapter should work just fine http://www.magma.com/products/pciexpress/expressbox1/index.html . They have PCI and PCIe versions.<br />
      <br />
      The only thing your laptop needs is an ExpressCard slot.<br />
      <br />
      Let me know if I'm not following the question here :-)
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      According to Benchmark yes this would allow you to play the HRx albums at full resolution. I have not tested this personally but I see absolutely no reason why this wouldn't work.